Silence settled on City Council chambers Tuesday afternoon as zoning committee members voted narrowly to defeat an embattled proposal to build a new apartment building with 30 units of affordable housing near O’Hare airport. In a vote of seven to five, the committee sided with 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano, who’s been trying to derail the project for the last year. Though it’s a loss for affordable housing advocates and the developer, the decision leaves opens the possibility of a federal court banning Chicago’s age-old practice of “aldermanic prerogative.”
As the Reader reported in January, Napolitano and his ward-level zoning advisory committee initially supported the 300-unit apartment building proposed by luxury developer GlenStar. But in the spring of 2017 the alderman reversed his position after tensions flared around a proposed affordable-housing building in nearby Jefferson Park. By then GlenStar had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing its proposal and conducting feasibility studies. The city’s Plan Commission approved GlenStar’s proposal last summer, with one member—44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney—saying there should be more on-site affordable housing than initially proposed. GlenStar complied, and, in full accordance with the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, planned to reserve 10 percent of the building—30 units—as affordable.
Napolitano then intensified his lobbying to scuttle the proposal at the zoning committee stage, the next hurdle the developer had to pass. Behind the scenes and in public, he repeatedly argued that GlenStar’s proposal would lead to overcrowding in local schools—this despite studies commissioned by the developer that showed a maximum estimate of fewer than 20 school-aged children in the building. Napolitano also claimed that he’d heard from a flood of constituents opposed to the building and that he had the right to exercise his aldermanic prerogative and have veto power over development decisions in his ward. Last September the zoning committee indefinitely tabled a vote on GlenStar’s proposal. Six months later, the developer sued in federal court, arguing the city was violating its due process rights. The suit also asked for the city’s long-standing custom of aldermanic prerogative to be declared unlawful.
The zoning committee finally put GlenStar’s proposal on the agenda in response to the lawsuit—but, GlenStar’s attorney Peter Friedman argues, today’s denial doesn’t negate the harm the developer is suing over. “I think that the hearing today significantly strengthens our claims against the city,” Friedman said. “During the hearing today there was not one piece of expert testimony that countered any of our experts and their reports with regard to traffic or impacts on local schools. What there was at the hearing was a lot of misstatements, mischaracterizations, and a lack of honesty with regard to the history of our proposal and the alderman’s previous approval of our development.”
After 18 people spoke for GlenStar’s proposal and seven spoke against it in the public testimony portion, Napolitano and other aldermen made impassioned arguments for and against the building. Napolitano talked at length about school overcrowding, and claimed there was already sufficient rental housing in the area around GlenStar’s land. “I’ve provided each one of you with a document that shows my calculation of the total number of units within 15 square blocks of this proposed [building],” he said, waving a packet of papers. “I have 6,503 apartments, a bulk of them are open with vacancies for rentals, a bulk of them that are being rented at below-market rates, a bulk of them that are dying for people to come in and rent these apartments. The units are there.” He added that his constituents’ opposition to the proposal “has nothing to do with fear of change.”
Several aldermen said that ward-level opposition to developments with affordable housing hurts the whole city. “As aldermen, if we continue to constantly take a feudal view on affordable housing, then we’re always gonna be pricing people out of the city,” argued 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar, adding that, nationwide, “there’s a playbook and central casting for opposing affordable housing” on the basis of density, parking, and school populations. “I also think it’s important to revisit aldermanic prerogative,” he said. “Maybe get rid of it when it comes to affordable housing.”
After the hearing, GlenStar’s managing principal, Larry Debb, would only say that he was “very disappointed” that the aldermen “didn’t do the right thing.” Michael Rabbitt, a 41st Ward resident who’s been a leading supporter of the development said that “aldermanic prerogative is the new restrictive covenant.”
But the vote siding with Napolitano means GlenStar’s lawsuit now could put aldermanic prerogative in jeopardy for the whole City Council. Sources told the Reader that the mayor’s office lobbied zoning committee members to vote no—not necessarily because Rahm Emanuel supports Napolitano or is particularly interested in this development, but because a federal judgment against the longstanding City Council custom of allowing aldermen veto power on developments would bolster mayoral power. The mayor’s spokesperson, Adam Collins, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Though the residents of the 41st Ward and the workers of O’Hare might have a long time yet to wait for affordable housing options in the neighborhood, GlenStar’s fight for its building isn’t over. It could still have seismic consequences for politics and policy in the city.